'The swag is limitless': why Beyoncé's Beychella Homecoming is so radical | Candice Carty-Williams

‘You can’t be what you can’t see.” A quote from African American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman flashes on screen halfway through Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé, a two-hour Netflix special that goes behind the scenes of her landmark 2018 Coachella headline set. “It’s hard to believe that after all these years, I was the first African American woman to headline Coachella,” Beyoncé says in voiceover, as the camera dwells on a stuffed ring binder bearing the words “BEYCHELLA 2018”. “It was important to me that everyone who had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us.”

In April last year, Beyoncé brought the culture of historically black colleges and universities to the California festival (and thousands of viewers watching the live stream), choreographing 200 performers – including an all-black marching band, dancers of all sizes, her sister Solange – on a giant pyramid the height and breadth of the stage. She referenced the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, a cry for hope and liberation known as the black national anthem. “I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process,” Beyoncé says in Homecoming. “Thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history.” Her performance was exciting, regal and black in celebration: “Beyoncé is bigger than Coachella,” the New York Times declared.

The trailer for Homecoming – video

Homecoming is presented as a behind-the-scenes documentary: the slick performance is broken up by grainy personal footage that shows the physical, intellectual and emotional effort that went into eight months of rehearsals. “I personally selected each dancer, every light, the material on the steps, the height of the pyramid, the shape of the pyramid,” says Beyoncé. “Every tiny detail had an intention.” More importantly, it shows what it means: as much as Homecoming is a concert film, it also challenges cultural representations of blackness and invents new ones.

How often do we black women get to perform not just music, but also blackness, in white spaces? Twenty-two years into her career, Beyoncé gave something new to a world that still defines us by narrow social constraints. “As a black woman, I felt like the world wanted me to stay in that little box,” she says. “And black women often feel underestimated.” Beyoncé’s decolonisation of a stage – one that made its name as an indie-rock festival and where attendance has become a status symbol – is what made her performance so rare.

Homecoming is about redefining cultural expectations, but also finds Beyoncé testing her own limitations. While she has become increasingly vulnerable through her music, she’s not known for sharing her life outside her art: she hasn’t given a face-to-face interview in around five years, and a self-directed 2013 documentary for HBO was criticised for its lack of intimacy. In that respect, this is the first real look in years at the artist as human. Beyoncé was due to headline Coachella in 2017, a performance she postponed a year after becoming pregnant with twins. Homecoming details the difficulty of the pregnancy and birth, and the extreme dietary and physical measures she took to prepare for the festival.

Solange and Beyoncé at Coachella 2018.

‘The amount of swag is just limitless’ … Solange and Beyoncé at Coachella in 2018. Photograph: Frank Micelotta/Rex/Shutterstock

“I definitely pushed myself further than I knew I could and I’ve learned a very valuable lesson,” she says. “I will never, never push myself that far again.” We see her struggle to be a parent and a wife as well as a performer. “Physically, it was a lot to juggle,” she says. “It’s not like before when I could rehearse 15 hours straight. I have children. I have a husband.” It’s a significant moment: how often are black women able to show vulnerability in an industry that doesn’t allow for privacy, nor for failure?

Homecoming looks beyond Beyoncé to demonstrate how the show was primarily a celebration of black people, and specifically her performers. “There were no rules, and we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalised,” Beyoncé says, sweaty and dishevelled, as we see shots of a messy, busy rehearsal space. Homecoming spotlights some of those who were on the journey with her: the backing dancer who couldn’t rehearse for a year because she was pregnant, but made it on to the stage and feels proud to be part of something that her son can watch when he’s older and and “identify with the people, identify with the culture”; the baton twirler who says: “This dream is something that I could never dream of for myself. I couldn’t dream this big at all.”

The film gleans its power from showing the texture of Beychella – the behind-the-scenes moments, the love, the energy all transcend the majesty of the performance itself. Homecoming celebrates patience, process, inspiration, imperfection, but predominantly the rich, black culture that built Beyoncé. As she says: “The amount of swag is just limitless.”

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is published by Trapeze (£12.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


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